Play with heart and for your country

Irena at Carnegie Hall on January 8, 2020

“I feel great deep sorrow. Why is this happening? It’s hard to understand, it all happened so suddenly. And it’s not 150% fair.

As Born in Ukraine classical pianist Irena Portenkonow resident of Dobbs Ferry, refers to the carnage and suffering that Russian forces have inflicted on his country, an immense emotion is heard in his voice. His parents live in kyiv and his mother is not well. “My mother was scheduled for heart surgery on February 24,” Portenko said. “She entered the hospital on the 23rd and preparations for her surgery included IVs. But the next morning, there was no one to take her to the operating room. The war had started and everyone was lining up at the hospital’s ATM, trying to get money. Portenko’s mother, with IVs still attached, joined the line.

Later, her daughter helped organize – from Westchester – a taxi to transfer her parents home. “It was surreal, like a bad dream or a horror movie that doesn’t end,” Portenko said. Her mother still hasn’t had her procedure, but Portenko talks to her family daily. “We say goodbye every night and meet every day with a full smile. If you meet every day, it’s a good day.

Pianist, teacher and organizer of music festivals, Portenko lent her own skills to the Ukrainian cause and performed at two benefit concerts in March – one in Tarrytown Music Hallorganized by Tara Framerthe other to Carnegie Hallwhere she made her debut in 2009. “I assimilated into this society, but in my heart and in my soul I am very Ukrainian,” she says.

Portenko, who has a perfect ear, was a child prodigy, showing signs of musical ability at the age of three. At age eight, she made her debut as a soloist with the National Orchestra of Ukraine. “I’m the third generation of professional musicians in my family,” she said. “My grandmother was also a pianist and linguist. Her ability to speak French and German fluently helped her survive World War II, when the Germans occupied kyiv, and she helped rescue Jewish children, hiding them in her basement.

Irena’s grandmother who gave her her name

“She was beautiful, an intellectual, awarded nine medals for her partisan work. And I now feel her around me, guiding me, even though she died in 2008. She is my talisman.

The same goes for Portenko’s mother, also a pianist, a professor at the National Academy of Music of Ukraine and a member of the orchestra of the Kyiv Opera and Ballet Theater. “She is very tough, very fair, always knows how things should look. She is my North Star.

After intensive musical training in Ukraine, Portenko was offered the opportunity to study in the United States, first at Michigan State University and later at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor where she obtained her master’s degree and then his doctorate. “Since the age of eight, I have been performing all the time, until three weeks before the birth of my daughter.” she says. “There is no break in performance, no matter what happens in my life. Performance is a state of mind for me, channeling the beautiful music that I love.

Portenko has made frequent trips to Ukraine over the years and nine years ago also became the director of the “Music in the Alps” festival in Austria, an opportunity for young people to meet and interact with professional musicians. in a mountain setting. This year, she worries about young Ukrainian male musicians – “Young boys who dazzled audiences cannot continue with their passions but now have to stay behind to help in the fights.”

Fully occupied as Portenko is – playing, recording, backing up the backing vocals of Scarsdale School Districtteaching in his own studio and also at the Westchester Conservatory of Music – she focuses above all on her hopes, and her fears, for her homeland. “People fight for freedom, but freedom comes at a very high price,” she said. “We have to prove that we are strong at home, and abroad we have to be strong for those left behind. We are all connected by our hearts and souls, wherever we are,” she asserts.

Irena, her mother and her daughter after a performance of Carmina Burana at Innsbruck 2018. Mother and daughter were part of the orchestra.

And she draws her strength from her daughter, who is studying medicine in Arizona. “She does a lot of volunteer work labeling, packing and sending medical supplies, collaborating and organizing charities. I would say she inherited the strength and resilience from my grandmother and my mother. She is my true inspiration in general, but especially in the way she handles the situation,” Portenko said.

Portenko has set up a GoFundMe to support Ukrainian musicians. Donations are made at gofundme.com/f/help-support-displaced-ukrainian-musicians. Donations can also be made to unitedhelpukraine.org or razomforukraine.org.

About Roy B. Westling

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